When I saw my first 3D printer I was enthralled. “What a neat device this is!” I whispered to myself as I watched the print head move back and forth, each swath laying a tiny layer of plastic. The group I was with visiting a fabricator shop moved off to see other tools of the trade, like plasma and water cutters, laser cutters and turret lathes. It was a builder’s dream that made the old envy of This Old House’s New Yankee Workshop seem drab and lifeless. Years ago when Bob Villa still hosted what amounted to a thirty minute advertisement for one company or another seem like an instructional program (a lost art these days), the tools used in construction caused we watchers to drool over the tools used. Of course, there was no way the vast majority of watchers could ever afford the tools paraded by the camera, but like going to a concept car show, it was fun to watch.
A bit later our group wandered back by the 3D printer and what had been a nub of colored plastic had turned into the better part of a gear in a casing. When finished, a prototype of a working gearbox would be the end result. It was like magic. “So, uh, how much does a printer like this cost?” I asked our tour guide. He replied with a beaming smile that the one we were looking at was about $25,000 and was able to create things at a six by six by six inch dimension. All of a sudden the 3D printer wasn’t quite as nifty as it had been initially.
Time went by and 3D printers became more common and a number of different companies offered kits (read: a bunch of raw components rather than parts which could be assembled into a finished product). Still more time went by and the kits turned into real kits, which could be assembled into a working printer by following a set of directions. Finally it was possible for hobby users to outright purchase a 3D printer and the prices, while still a bit on the steep side, didn’t compete with a second car for the family. $3,000 could buy a pretty nice one and a decent printer could be had for under a grand. This was finally in my territory and I began to think about buying myself a 3D printer.
There was only one problem left: I couldn’t for the life of me think of anything I wanted to print. At least, nothing that I couldn’t just buy, and for a heck of a lot less than a 3D printer and the various miscellany that was needed to actually make something. There was software that took drawings and rendered them into 3D drawings and then digitized the result into printing instructions. This was some pretty heady stuff, and checking out a couple of the 3D printers and the software that went with them made my head spin. So considering the complexity that a project entailed, the expense, and the time it took to actually print a part, I came to the conclusion that a 3D printer was as useful to me as a xylophone for an artilleryman.
Still, the idea of a 3D printer is pretty neat and some amazing things could be made with the things, one of which was a working pistol. I have seen steel pistols which malfunctioned and blew up, taking a lot of the hand that held them with it. Well, I didn’t personally see this, but I saw video which is close enough for me. The thought of all of that explosive power in a plastic pistol printed by what amounts to an ink jet with a big ego was enough to make me shudder. It made a lot of law enforcement shudder too, but not because the gun was fragile, because the gun wouldn’t show up in the detectors they used to find guns secreted on someone’s person. Of course, that’s only true if the gun was unloaded because the detectors are more than capable of detecting the bullets. This made me wonder what the fuss was about in law enforcement circles, what is the difference whether you catch someone smuggling a gun by finding the gun or the ammo? The smuggle is still caught, right? So I went back to thinking about just how dumb someone could be to shoot a gun made out of plastic squirted like ink on an office document. Then I quit thinking about it at all and went back to thinking about why I thought a 3D printer was such a great idea for someone like me.
Oh sure, I like to make things. I like to come up with ways to accomplish something and and turn that idea into a working item. I like to take things which already work and make them work better. Sometimes I’m wrong and my better turns out not so much better, or in some cases turns out worse, but it’s all about the fun of creation. Until it isn’t, I guess. But hey, that’s life.
What I suppose I’ve been working my way up to here is that sometimes you can really want something only to discover that you have no use for it. Lord knows I have shelf after shelf of this and that bearing testament to exactly this concept. What I had great intentions for have become art, something to act as a muse to whet my imagination and keep the old synapses oiled and ready, just in case I have a cogent thought. But it’s funny how we can be so sure that we absolutely, positively, desperately need something when we really don’t.